The corona crisis has exposed the needs as well as the limits of leadership in Bangladesh. In general, its a largely rural society with somewhat super-imposed state institutions that are linked to official governance. It's the case for many “transitional” states though what they are transitioning into is not clear. In Bangladesh, political leaders have emerged far more powerful than the rest. And its they who are perceived as “leaders” who must take charge in times of crisis.
Whether that happened in case of the corona crisis, is not clear but what is clear is that the demand for it is huge and remains unmet. The fact that there is very strong leadership at the top makes all the more difficult for the politicians down the line. They pale so much in comparison that it has become a one-leader state. The leader is there at the top but the political soldiers below are not putting in stellar performances. The inevitable question is, “what is to be done to make it a more confident state?”
Are political leaders organic to the state?
The issue of course is the nature of the state. Unless that is clearly defined and functioning, the political leaders will be the same. In general, the state structure has been largely informal but the concept of political leadership is perceived as formal agents of state will. There are many instances of the same but not enough analysis about the sources and roots.
The nature of our politics is essentially informal with links and connections sustaining relationships around which politics is continued and contained. Hence, these informal relationships form the structure rather than the formal, legal or official structure. Thus the state political governance pattern follows this method and out of this emerges a state that is asked to perform official and formal functions when the structural environment is informal.
Political leadership emerges out of this confusing nature of the state which makes the functionaries wear a formal uniform but to survive they function informally. But the critical part involved is access to resources which is not possible unless one is in both. Hence the political leadership draws its “ legitimacy” from the formal structure which gives the seal of approval but survives and flourishes playing by the rules of informality.
This means introducing formality into informality which can’t happen well. As the state political institutions including the parties are both formal and informal, its capacity is limited by its own nature. It can’t exert formal structural conduct when that part of the functioning is informal. Granting relief is informal but distribution is informal. The result is domination of the” formal” legitimized by state politics while institutions to take advantage of informal functioning that dominates Bangladesh society. Hence there is systemic dysfunctionality.
What about social leaders?
Social leaders are organic to Bangladesh. For that they matter they are to any state that is rooted in informality. The problem has been in analyzing Bangladesh using indicators of developed capitalist states when it doesn’t operate here. The failed experiment of socialism has also shown that unless the state and society are both in sync, with its informal and formal nature, that state will collapse. To that end, China is proving to be new direction to walk to though its still going through the initial stages. But its one state that is trying to incorporate both elements.
Bangladesh is essentially a “Village state” where the rural urban link is a critical factor even for state resource gathering and social enrichment. Even the big two economic sectors , rmg and remittance are run along mixed lines. Both also depend on rural labour access for its survival and success. In such a scenario, the implicit role of the informal to the sustenance of formality is clear.
The problem is the corona crisis has shown that the formal sector, largely untested in managing a crisis like this requires robust formal structures which is absent in Bangladesh. The hybrid nature of the state makes its functioning as an efficient agency of the state falls short. The tales of corruption, mismanagement, inability to exert lockdown, inadequate testing, effective national strategy for the economy etc all point to the inability of the formal sector to be sufficiently formal.
The informal social leaders could have created the platform on which the formal state could have achieved much but social leadership is largely being replaced by the hybrid political leaders who need the current model for network enrichment. Given that scene it is obvious, we are facing a new kind of structural crisis that can’t be resolved by good intentions alone.
This state is not going to become fully formal and there is no need but that it needs strengthening in terms of efficiency. The informal sector social leaders must also be ensured their space without belonging to the political structure to let informality play its role. Without accepting that both have a role and not using one to gain by misusing others can’t work.